“Changes” Colchester Federated Church, May 5, 2019, (Acts 9:1-20) Third Sunday of Easter
Continuing on in Eastertide, we turn from the experience Thomas had of the Risen Christ last week to an experience Saul (who would become known as Paul) of Tarsus had of the Risen Christ. This is a well-known story of conversion—of a person seeing the light and coming to new understandings about who they are and their faith journey. We’re told that Saul was still breathing threats and murder against Jesus’ disciples. In the Acts of the Apostles Chapter 7, we remember that Saul was present at the stoning of Stephen (the person we recognize as the first Christian martyr in our tradition.) We’re told that Saul approved of Stephen’s violent death.
We need to avoid sugarcoating Saul’s past this morning. He is not an innocent, blameless man. Saul quite literally had blood on his hands. And he’s going to Damascus because he’s hunting for people who are followers of Jesus. Saul seeks to bind them and bring them back to Jerusalem to be imprisoned, possibly to even be stoned to death like Stephen—we’re not quite sure. Though Saul capturing these disciples wasn’t going to end well for them. We know that for certain.
Somehow in the midst of this hatred and violence, Jesus shows up. Jesus shows up right there in the middle of it all. Saul sees a light from heaven flashing around him and hears Jesus say, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city and you will be told what you are to do.” In persecuting the followers of Jesus Christ, Saul is persecuting Jesus himself. Somehow (just like Thomas) Jesus meets Saul right where he is and Saul has this mystical moment, this religious experience, this seeing the light of Christ and knowing that new life is being offered freely to him. Not because of him being pure and innocent (because he’s most certainly not), but because God sees something in Saul that he can’t yet see in himself. Saul receives an invitation to a whole new way of being and his past doesn’t have to define his future. The same can be said for all of us, thanks be to God.
The story of Saul on the road to Damascus can linger in our minds and hearts because it’s a story about a person truly changing for the better. Now this is a genuine question—do we believe that people can change? Because there’s a lot of popular wisdom out there that people can’t change. A leopard can’t change its spots. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. You can’t change people, either you accept who they are or start living without them.
We see in our New Testament story today someone who initially struggles with Saul’s astounding change. Ananias is a disciple who also has a vision of Jesus. And Jesus commands him to look for Saul of Tarsus because he’s an instrument whom Jesus chose to bring Jesus’ name before Gentiles, kings, and the people of Israel. Ananias initially responds with, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” Ananias is basically double-checking Jesus here—are you sure that you’ve got the right, guy? Saul, as in, the person who is making all of our lives horrible and watching us get killed and arresting us—that Saul? Jesus confirms that indeed this is the right person. And Ananias does the will of God.
We tend to focus on Saul’s conversion experience on the road to Damascus when we read Acts Chapter 9. Though Ananias should always get credit for doing as Jesus commanded in the vision and trusting in that religious experience. Because Saul was coming to arrest people, and Ananias goes to Saul and helps him. We may wonder if the whole time he was making that journey to the home where they were keeping Saul he was preparing to be arrested or worse by revealing his identity as a follower of Jesus to a person who was known for his violent treatment of disciples. Though Ananias trusted in God and helped Saul become the person that God was calling him to be.
So this is a story of someone who has a true change of heart. It’s a story of another person who trusted in their change of heart. And it’s a reminder that whether we believe that people can fundamentally change (or not), life is full of changes. The one thing that we can count on is that life won’t always stay the same.
There’s a classic book by William Bridges called Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes and he argues that change is inevitable. That Americans have thrived on change because we’re often driven forward by the faith that better things lay just beyond the horizon. Though change is situational whereas transitions are psychological. In other words, it’s not just about events (like moving to a new city, having a baby, or the death of a loved one) that we need to process throughout our lives. We also must undergo the inner reorientation and self-redefinition that helps us actually incorporate those changes into our lives. The inner work has to be done for a change to actually “take” if you will.
William Bridges argues that we must undergo a difficult process of letting go of an old situation, suffering the confusing nowhere of in-betweenness, and then launch forth again in a new situation. We experience an ending, a neutral zone, and a new beginning. And Bridges doesn’t subscribe to the idea of a specific age where we may have a mid-life crisis. Instead, he states “adulthood unfolds its promise in an alternating rhythm of expansion and contraction, change and stability.”
Saul’s conversion experience was one of those moments of expansion and change. Expanding his horizons, his mind and heart. Expanding his ideas about God’s love for those very people he was persecuting. Expanding his social circle to include people like Ananias who he would have despised before—who shows up in his hour of need and lays hands on Saul to bless him. Something like scales fall from his eyes as his sight is restored and Saul gets up, gets baptized, eats some food, and regains his strength. It’s hard to know how old Saul was when he experienced the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus though this isn’t a mid-life crisis. This a profound moment of expansion, and Saul probably did some of that inner work William Bridges writes about in order to make the change he experienced stick. He would have done that soul work in order to see this moment as an invitation to embark on a new beginning.
Now today is our Annual Meeting here at CFC and some of what I highlighted in my Pastor’s Report were key results from surveys you (the congregation) did back in 2016 during the Search and Call process. I’ve been here for two years and am more settled, so I’ve spent time looking over the Vital Signs report and engaging with the results. The huge mistake that churches make is putting time, attention, and money into these surveys and not using the information to move forward. Because those survey results weren’t just about finding your next Pastor, the report detailed what the congregation prioritizes.
In this particular survey, there are quadrants that congregations land in to see where your energy and satisfaction levels happen to be. CFC (at the time the congregation took the survey three years ago) landed in the Low Energy, Low Satisfaction quadrant. That quadrant is the Recovery Quadrant. And in order for a church in the Recovery Quadrant to move forward, major changes are needed. These are the words one can find in CFC’s Holy Cow Consulting Vital Signs Report, “churches in this quadrant require major changes in order to regain a significant level of vitality and health.”
For a minister, the Recovery Quadrant is exciting. Because things can’t continue to be done as they have always been done. That famous line most churches love, “but we’ve always done it this way.” That ain’t gonna fly, my friends. Because the results were low energy and low satisfaction with where the congregation has been in the recent past. Instead, we’re invited to usher in a new beginning. Major changes are required for CFC to regain a significant level of vitality and health both now and into the future. That may be intimidating to hear as a member of the congregation, but maybe it’s exciting for you too. We can go into uncharted territory together. We can be explorers and dreamers. We can experiment and try new things. This can be fun!
As we look toward the future together as Pastor and people—what changes will occur? What will this look like? How do we even begin? Those are questions we can address together. Those are questions we can ask ourselves on Diaconate and in all the ministries we already have going on here.
The goal is to eventually land in the high energy, high satisfaction quadrant. The goal is to be a stronger faith community together. The goal is that the individual needs of members will matter less than being the Body of Christ here in Colchester and beyond. Because our own needs will sometimes get put to the side as we focus on the needs of others and on being the church that people may need who aren’t yet sitting here in our pews this morning.
The way that it’s always been done hasn’t always been working well. That’s alright. And we’re already moving in new directions. The times, they are a-changin’. Because we’re being challenged to look beyond our sanctuary walls and minister beyond our walls so that we, like Saul, will have moments of expansion. The future must be about embracing change so that we can experience new beginnings.
Can people truly change? Can churches truly change?
With God, it’s possible. Thanks be to God. Amen.